Today, at 6:01 PM, we hit the 50th anniversary of the moment Martin Luther King, Jr was shot on a balcony in Memphis. He was pronounced dead less than two hours later, at the age of 39, which seems impossibly young to have become such towering moral giant, and far too young to be a martyr. It was the day after giving what is one of the most retrospectively painful and difficult speeches in the history of our nation.
Today has been a day of memory and mourning, looking back at a man who changed his country as much as anyone ever has. It’s been two kind of celebrations: one of the (almost-literally) whitewashed King, who people pretend was colorblind, and who has been adopted by conservatives. There have been grotesque hosannas to him from scum like Paul Ryan and Bruce Rauner, who hope to capture some of his mythologized glory. It’s all part of the campaign, seen time and time again, to pretend that King was some kind of conservative.
But the other side of that has been, refreshingly and bracingly, a revolt against that. It’s been a strict reminder that the March on Washington was actually called the March for Jobs and Freedom, as economic opportunity was always at the heart of King’s message. It’s been a searing reminder that he was in Memphis to support black workers who were being oppressed. To support unions against the bosses, and the underclass against the rich.
It’s been a reminder that King was truly a radical. It wasn’t just that he was against Vietnam, although he was hated for that. It was that he was (in large part) against Vietnam because he saw it as a way to push more poor blacks into the firing line.
Nor is his radicalism just because he began to turn against the cruel grinding mechanisms of capitalism, although he was hated for that. It was that he was (in large part) against capitalism because he it saw it as a system to transform black bodies and black lives in money for rich whites.
No, he was radical because he saw America for what it really was: a vast system in which black people were still property. He saw it as a system in which they didn’t matter except as a way to make money for people, whether it was the connected owners sanitation companies and the politicians they bribed, factory bosses who could pay blacks a lower rate, prison wardens getting slave labor, cops demanding overwhelming bribes, or the vast layers of American wealth that had been built on the backs of slaves and carried throughout Jim Crow, segregation, and redlining.
King was a radical because he used his overwhelming moral force to hold up a mirror to this country and shame it. He showed us that our story was a lie, that the placidity and decency we pretended underpinned every action were propped up by violence against blacks, and that it had been that way since the country was discovered.
He held up his mirror and showed a bent-backed miserly tyrant of a nation, a whip-holding hunchback who thought itself Adonis. And he had demands.
It’s a lie when people say that King was colorblind. When he said his famous line about judging by the content of character instead of the color of skin, he wasn’t talking to everyone. He didn’t say “let’s never see race, ok?” He was saying that black people were only seen as black people, and they had vast injustices leveled against them because of the white power class- which everyone was a part of, even moderates who felt themselves friends of the Negro- and he wanted that to stop.
He was a radical because he demanded America live up to its promise. As many have said, he didn’t demand “peace” in a “let bygones be bygones” way. He demanded justice.
My favorite essay of the day was by Michael Harriot in The Root. In it, in which he points out again how hated King was by white America at the time of his death, he makes a great point:
We regurgitate the narrative that King and Malcolm X were on opposite sides of the fight. We don’t seem to remember that both men were targets of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.
We have conveniently forgotten that both men were considered “Negro radicals.” We like the phrase “Black Power” because history has reduced the term “nonviolent resistance” to “nonviolence.”
They have erased the most important ingredient of King’s civil rights struggle:
He resisted like a motherfucker.
It’s true: King was every bit as radical as Malcolm X. He saw into the heart of America, and rejected it. Malcolm X and others wanted to fight the system. King wanted to uproot it by shining the brightest possible light on its rot. But both wanted to destroy what America was.
That’s why it is a goddamn ignoble lie to pretend that King wouldn’t have supported Black Lives Matter or Colin Kaepernick or would have sided with the police when they gunned down yet another black man. It’s why it is hideous when white conservatives insist King didn’t see race. He saw it because America saw it. And he wanted America to see the monster that it always had been.
This isn’t to say there has been no progress. But it is clear progress is halting and fragile, and the outlandish, sneering, chest-thumping, proud racism that has found itself in power again is proof of that. Martin Luther King showed America to be fundamentally racist, and that is why he was hated.
Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t killed for being a man of peace. He was killed for being a radical. The only true tribute to be paid to him is to recognize that essential radicalism, and keep fighting the long war he fought.